BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican Hall, London
Markus Werba, Wigmore Hall, London
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London

As the BBC Symphony Orchestra turns 80, its value for money has never been more pronounced

Times are hard; jobs are going; there's a housing crisis and a monstrous conflict has left hideous scars. What to do?

The answer, for a battered Britain in 1930, was: start an orchestra. Penny-pinching had no part to play when the BBC Symphony Orchestra was founded or, indeed, its Scottish sister, five years later, a time of even greater deprivation (as depicted in Men Should Weep, reviewed by Kate Bassett opposite).

At its 80th birthday concert, the BBCSO revisited, with film clips between the music, some of the line-ups and conductors who have built its dogged history, from the first, beaky old gents, rendered solemn by war. It was a moving montage, testimony in part to inspired appointments – Adrian Boult, Malcolm Sargent, Colin Davis, Rudolf Kempe, Andrew Davis, the list goes on. Today, audiences worldwide hear an energetic ensemble in which there are virtually equal numbers of women and men, whose reach stretches far beyond the concert platform.

Pioneering new music has been central to BBCSO: guaranteed, by virtue of the airwaves, a substantial audience (every concert is broadcast), it can strike out into uncharted water without fearing for its box-office receipts. And so, apart from some memory-lane Wagner – the overture to The Flying Dutchman was the first piece performed in 1930 – and a thrillingly savage Rite of Spring, the octogenarian celebrated by breaking out the new stuff.

Kaija Saariaho's D'om le vrai sens, a BBC co-commission, given its UK premiere, is a pied piper of a piece, the solo clarinet at one level representing the unicorn in the medieval tapestries that partly inspired the composer, winding its way not only through the music but also through the auditorium, stage and players until they too rise and leave. The high whinnying of the virtuosic clarinet of Kari Kriikku heralds an aural journey through the senses – hearing, sight, smell, touch and taste to the sixth sense, love. Exploring this sensory forest, the soloist neighed, snorted and wheedled against a backdrop not only richly coloured by the orchestra, nimbly conducted by David Robertson, but also by a lit screen, in blocks of rainbow hues.

This is a beguiling piece by the Finnish composer – her soundworld is distinctive and compelling. Listen again on Radio 3 until Wednesday. Nothing to pay.

Less captivating, but entertaining in the way of a circus, was the world premiere of Stephen McNeff's ConcertO Duo, written for the vivacious Owen Gunnell and Olly Cox. Solo (or as here, duet) percussion is the pointillism of music: five minutes into the hailstorm of nuggets, the fancy for a sustained note turns into a craving. But there are worse places than this midpoint between movement and music.

The freezing of the licence fee for five years equates to a cut in funding of about 5 per cent a year. The BBC has also, newly, to pay for the World Service and other vital organs, from its original budget. In its search for cuts it might look at its five orchestras through narrowed eyes. But countless millions worldwide are lifted out of the material and mediocre by BBC music, which reflects well on this country, and its performing groups' work in communities touches 80,000 children and adults a year. If the BBC considered axing even one ensemble to keep Graham Norton in cashmere, it would save about eight pence a year for every woman, man and child in the population. Sounds like rotten housekeeping to me.

Iceland's ash cloud has not yet settled in the world of music. Flight cancellations in April meant that it took the young Austrian baritone Markus Werba six months to reschedule his Wigmore Hall BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert. So it was understandable that with the eagerness of a late-arriving guest to make amends, he tore into a programme of Schubert and Brahms lieder like a puppy with a parcel. Not every word of these highly coloured texts needs to be shot out, but better this full-on interpretation, with the quick-witted Gary Matthewman at the piano, than limpid languor. And how much more entertaining it is for the radio audience. You can listen again until tomorrow. Nothing to pay. Then imagine him as Don Giovanni or Billy Budd, both of which roles he has sung, and worth catching next time round.

Persuasive as Werba was in his lament for the Earl o' Moray in "Murrays Ermordung", Sarah Connolly faced a more terrible grief in Kindertotenlieder with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski. Rückert's poems on the death of his own two children, set by Mahler before the death of his daughter Maria, demand superhuman emotional strength. Connolly's strategy was to sing from the plain between numbness and resignation, surging briefly at the regret of Nie hätt'ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus (I should never have sent the children out) and emerging almost radiantly at Sie ruh'* als wie in der Mutter Haus (They are resting as if at home with mother). Mendelssohn's spring-green Symphony No 5, begun at the age of 20, and Brahms's late-summer Symphony No 3 drew wonderful solo playing from the orchestra, but also from the double basses. What a remarkable section this is, the heartbeat of the orchestra, vital, astonishing, and worth its considerable weight in gold.

Next Week:

Anna Picard opens her ears to the chest register of Les Voix Bulgares

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